The UN General Assembly today declared access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation a human right, in a resolution that no country opposed but on which 41, including the U.S., abstained. The abstainers raised various objections, one of which had to do with the status of an ongoing 'process' on the subject at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, another with the alleged absence of a basis in international law for declaring the right to water a "free-standing" right (as the British delegate put it).
2.6 billion people, or roughly 40 percent of the world's population, lack access to sanitation, and nearly a billion people lack access to clean water. This resolution, like all General Assembly resolutions, is non-binding and must be seen as aspirational. It apparently does not commit states to any specific actions, though it does call on them to "scale up" efforts to transfer technology and expertise that would improve the situation. Aspirational resolutions are not meaningless, and abstaining on this particular one makes little sense. It only makes the abstainers look small-minded and mean-spirited. Moreover, pronouncements about the "existing state of international law" merely reinforce the accurate perception that international law in this respect is in need of renovation.
Update: S. Carvin at Duck of Minerva has a longer post about this here.